Back in ’77, there was no HBO, Hulu or iTunes. When it came to your television-watching possibilities, you were pretty much a captive of network TV. (And, perhaps, on a good night, PBS.) But even with limited viewing options back then, Alex Haley’s Roots wasn’t just must-see TV; it was we-all-watched TV, with more than 100 million Americans tuning in for the finale, making it one of the highest-rated TV shows. Ever. It’s hard to overstate the impact of Haley’s eight-night, sprawling slave saga. A nation tuned in, and a nation was changed.
Shortly after the show aired, I was walking through the halls of my very Southern prep school when a white classmate sheepishly approached me. She wanted to apologize for slavery. “For the first time in my life,” she said, “I am ashamed of being white.” Which is to say, for the first time in her life, she’d realized, really realized, that maybe, just maybe, slavery wasn’t a good thing. Um, OK. But for a scion of the Old South, attending a school where some of the teachers still bemoaned the unfortunate outcome of the Civil War, speaking derisively of “up North,” this was a pretty big admission.
Roots, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this week, took slavery from the schoolbooks and onto the little screen, rendering it real. Yes, Haley’s 1976 novel, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, upon which the TV show was based, was a big best-seller. But television is a visceral medium. It’s one thing to read about Kunta Kinte being beaten for refusing to accept his “slave name,” Toby. But it’s quite another thing to see it, to watch LeVar Burton/Kunta Kinte enduring every whiplash, to witness his pain. Knowing that Kunta Kinte really lived, that he was one of Haley’s great-great-greats, gave the series an extra pop of potency.
It didn’t hurt, of course, that the show boasted a who’s who of black and white talent circa 1977. Network execs were terrified that the show would flop, so they filled it with big names: Quincy Jones did the score, and then there was Cicely Tyson, John Amos, Lloyd Bridges, Edward Asner, Sandy Duncan, Lou Gossett Jr., Robert Reed, George Hamilton (!), Richard Roundtree, Leslie Uggams as Kizzy and Ben Vereen as Chicken George. Even O.J. Simpson got in on the act, straining credulity by playing a West African native in Kunta Kinte’s idyllic village.
It was thought that the series would finally cure the paltry and often problematic representation of blacks on television. Thirty-five years later, notwithstanding Hollywood powerhouses like Shonda Rhimes, it’s still fairly rare to find a TV show centered around the lives of black folks. (Time will tell if Don Cheadle’s House of Lies and Rhimes’ upcoming drama, Scandal, starring Kerry Washington, will make a change.)